Brain cancer is the most common type of solid cancer in children, and can be notoriously difficult to target with interventions such as chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. But the work of Brain Canada-funded researchers is shedding new light into our ability to treat this pernicious childhood illness.

“The more that we learn about these particular types of cancers, the more we realize how clever they are,” says Dr. Laura Donovan. Dr. Donovan is a Principal Investigator studying childhood cancer at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London, UK. Until April 2020, she was a postdoctoral fellow working in the lab of Dr. Michael Taylor at the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) in Toronto.

One of the difficulties with brain cancer is that cancer cells “look” so similar to normally developing cells in the brain, making them difficult to specifically target with treatments without damaging normal brain tissue.

Research by Dr. Taylor, Dr. Donovan and others has shown that it’s possible to genetically modify chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells from a patient’s immune system to target proteins found only on the cancer cells. They then reintroduce the CAR T cells into the body, effectively “training” the patient’s immune system to identify cancer cells—and fight them. This discovery is bringing an immense amount of hope to the fight against childhood brain cancer.

A recent study, funded by Brain Canada and led by Dr. Donovan, developed a novel approach to the delivery of the modified CAR T cells by reintroducing them directly into the patient’s cerebrospinal fluid. In doing so, Dr. Donovan found it was possible to avoid potential adverse effects that could come from intravenous delivery.

“Ependymomas and medulloblastomas [the targeted tumour types] have a devastating prognosis,” says Dr. Donovan. “These clinical trials are giving us hope for an effective way to treat them. And they’re possible because of the funding we received from Brain Canada.”

She notes how encouraging it is, as a young researcher, to see work translate from the discovery phase to the clinical phase so quickly.

“It really has given me optimism, as well as the persistence to carry on,” she says.

Today, Dr. Donovan is building on her foundational work in the Taylor Lab, leading a research team dedicated to identifying therapies that could work in tandem with CAR T-cell therapy and increase the effectiveness of the treatment. She credits her work with Dr. Taylor for giving her the skills and confidence she has today as a Principal Investigator (PI).

“Michael was always very good at bringing home what these children are dealing with, and he was the bridge between the clinical and translational research. He really gave me an understanding of the types of therapies we should be working on and why this work is so important,” she shares.

“That level of support and guidance, and mentorship—it’s changed me as a person. And it’s set me up very well for a career as a PI.”